Story: Stokell, Gerald

Page 1 - Stokell, Gerald

Stokell, Gerald

1890–1972

Horticulturist, ichthyologist

This biography was written by R. M. McDowall and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Gerald Stokell was born on 20 June 1890 at Prebbleton, south of Christchurch, the son of Edmund Stokell, a farmer, and his wife, Jane Eliza Pasche. His whole life was spent at Prebbleton, where he lived in the family home on Shand’s Track with his parents, his brother, Clement, and sister, Eugenie; none of the children ever married. Gerald’s education was limited to Broadfields Primary School. He and Clement, who was Gerald’s confidant, grew and sold orchids. They were keen trout anglers and probably fished in the nearby Selwyn River and Lake Ellesmere.

During the late 1920s Gerald became concerned about the decline in the condition of trout in Lake Ellesmere. In 1928 he published investigations of the age, growth and diet of trout, and in 1936 published studies of their parasites. He maintained an interest in trout and salmon throughout his life, publishing papers on various acclimatised salmonid fishes. However, New Zealand’s indigenous freshwater fishes soon became his principal interest.

The freshwater fish fauna had been neglected by earlier naturalists, and Stokell found himself unable to identify many of those he encountered. He developed an ‘eye’ for a species, and from 1938 wrote many papers, describing new species and making their chaotic scientific nomenclature more orderly. Although some of his species are no longer accepted, our knowledge of these fauna is still based on his foundations: 10 of the 34 species now accepted were first described and named by Stokell, while the smelt genus Stokellia was named after him. Probably self-conscious about his lack of formal training, he developed an understanding of the complex protocols for describing animal species by establishing contacts with eminent overseas ichthyologists. His small book, Freshwater fishes of New Zealand , published in 1955, was the only account available for many years, and became the standard work.

Gerald Stokell was a supernumerary member of the Council of the North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society during the late 1920s, and he was known as a lively critic of the council’s activities. It is said that if he had criticism to offer, and could not get to a meeting, he would send Clement to deliver it. He joined the staff of the Canterbury Museum and became secretary of the Canterbury branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1938. He was president in 1941 when, in presenting his report, he made a wide-ranging and highly acerbic denunciation of the management of New Zealand’s fish and game resources. He said of members of acclimatisation societies that their ‘sole qualification for safe-guarding the welfare of wild creatures [is] the possession of a desire to kill them’. To ensure that his message was widely heard, he had his report published privately.

Clearly, by this time, he had fallen out with the Acclimatisation Society; he is no longer listed as a member after the mid 1930s. He declined an offer to become a fellow of the Royal Society because he felt that the Canterbury branch had let him down. This sharply critical perspective persisted, and surfaced from time to time in his writing, especially in his popular articles in angling magazines. He was a man of strong opinions, who welcomed interest in his work, but not criticism, and this led to frequent alienation from his associates. Consequently, as disputes developed between him and journal editors, he had to shift from one scientific journal to another to get his papers published. Nevertheless, his contribution to biological science was notable.

Gerald Stokell died in Christchurch on 10 July 1972, still busy with his latest studies of freshwater fishes. He was buried alongside others of his family in the Broadfields–Shands Road cemetery. Recognising his life’s work, a distinctive outline of a freshwater fish copied from one of his publications is engraved on his tombstone. He bequeathed his modest estate to the Canterbury Museum to fund its preparation of natural history displays.